By Steve Weinstein
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Background Check With all the exotic spices, tasty blending of vegetables and variety of breads and chutneys, who needs the inventory of lamb, chicken and shrimp found at mainstream Indian restaurants? Indian food and vegetarianism seem to be a match made in culinary heaven at this place opened this past summer by Shanker Chapa on Long Beach's main drag. I hit it with more than a dozen hungry peoplevegetarians, semi/neo/pseudo-vegetarians and proud carnivores.
Casing The Joint Prashanthi has 18 nicely spaced tables with a wine and beer bar at the rear. As a nod to the area's substantial population of Orthodox Jews, there is a certificate of Kashrut in the window, certifying the food as kosher; plus, there are prayer books and a sink for washing outside the restrooms. Pictures of the homeland (India, that is) and statues of various godheads are nicely lit, and the walls are covered with bamboo. Paper table cloths cover the tables and, inexplicably, "Fun and Games" place mats set the place for one and all. But no crayons. Luckily, I had brought my own and got to work on tic-tac-toe.
What We Ate Possibly to spare patrons from the embarrassment of poor pronunciation, the menu takes a cue from those in Chinese restaurants and has letters and numbers before each dish. We ordered the proverbial left side of the menu, which listed the appetizers. Bhel poori ($3.95), the Indian wet trail mix of fried noodles, lentils, peanuts, tomatoes and spices, was promptly inhaled, proving that it should be available by the bagful everywhere potato chips are sold. We immediately ordered more as I filled in some funny faces on my place mat. We ordered the assorted appetizers ($7.95) and asked Shanker if we got to choose the assortment. We didn't. It came with one vegetable cutlet and one samosa, a fried vegetable turnover. It also came with bajii, sort of the Indian version of tempura. This one had battered and fried green pepper and eggplant. We also got idlysteamed rice and lentil cakes served with coconut chutney and bean sauce. I had a bowl of mulligatawny soup, which stayed hot for 20 minutes in a copper-bottom bowl. It wasn't spicy, but bracing. Aloo paratha ($3.95) is potato-stuffed bread and mooli paratha ($3.95) is turnip-stuffed bread, both of which we ripped up by hand and devoured, ignoring both the heat and proper manners.
I found my way to the zoo on the place mat with my crayon and moved on to the other side of the menu, taking inventory with the knowledge that zoo and other animals were safe here tonight. Shanker came back and most items were ordered by number: "C-9!" "P-7!" I couldn't help yelling "Bingo!" and hoped that didn't mean something rude in Hindi.
Like a latke on steroids, oothappam ($7.95)(sometimes spelled with a "U") covered the plate and was topped with peas, carrots, tomatoes and onions. The masala dosa and rawa dosa ($7.95) were the biggest, wafer-thin crepes in the world. Rolled into pipes, they were filled with a potato mixture that would have been too messy for our horde to eat by hand. Like everything we sampled, they were both unusual and tasty. Pesarattu ($7.95) was another gigantic crepe, but made of green lentils and folded into a triangular shape, also filled with a potato concoction. Shahee paneer ($8.95) was one of the few dishes with cheese, which blended well with the spinach. Refreshing mango chutney was ordered separately ($1.50).
Carnivore Alert Turnabout is fair play, but this is not your place. The best I can tell you is that about two hours into the feast, we all started reminiscing about our favorite meats. Even the sole vegan in our group (and menu guide for the night) waxed poetic about the turkey on rye with Russian and slaw at the city's 2nd Avenue Deli. Peter Luger was mentioned with reverence. The virtues of bacon were extolled by the chief flesh eater among us. Talk was as close to meat as we were going to get. The lesson here is that a vegetarian can survive better in a steakhouse than a meat lover can in a place like this.
Cavity Patrol I shirked my duty and didn't order dessert. But next time, I plan to enjoy an ice-cream-like concoction called kulfi ($4.95) and some gulabjamun ($4.95), fried dough balls in a super-sweet syrup.
Damage Other than the various thalis, which include three curries, rice and dessert for $19.95, all other dishes top out at a very reasonable $8.95, with appetizers going for $3.95.